Questions & Authors: Using short texts with struggling readers

In a recent post author Pat Johnson (One Child at a Time, Catching Readers Before They Fall) talked about guided reading with struggling readers in grades 3-6. She emphasized using short texts with these students whenever possible. In this latest installment of Questions & Authors, Pat talks in more detail about what kinds of short texts she suggests.

I often recommend that teachers in upper elementary grades use short texts for struggling readers during guided reading. It’s so much easier to focus in on the students’ comprehension, or lack of understanding, when the lesson is centered on a poem, short story, or something equally as short. On occasion a teacher will ask, “But where do I find these short texts?”

My list of short texts includes five ideas: poetry, non-fiction articles, short stories or vignettes, excerpts from the book you are reading aloud to the whole class, and picture books.

Poetry. Poems often say a lot in very few words. They are perfect opportunities for students to dig deeper and create the meaning behind the poem. They can be read and reread easily enough and struggling readers often discover more each time they experience the poem. Poetry abounds with metaphors, figurative language, subtle humor, and other inferring opportunities. Take Jean Little’s poem called “Clothes” in her book  Hey, World Here I Am. She uses the first stanza to talk about what’s great about new clothes and then the second stanza to say why old clothes are so terrific also. But it’s the last line that gets kids delving deeper into the poem’s meaning. “You know, it’s a funny thing… Friends are like clothes.”

Non-fiction articles. Many teachers worry that in order to match their upper grade struggling readers with appropriate texts, they have to use “baby books.” There is nothing babyish about non-fiction articles. Check out some of the interesting topics in kids magazines, such as, Muse, Click, National Geographic for Kids, Time for Kids, and so on. I’ve learned so much about giant squid, climbing Mt. Everest, making jam from cactus flowers, what spiders do, and more, along with the kids I work with. Struggling readers, more often than not, love non-fiction. So spend a little time in your school or public library skimming through some of those magazines and look for a few articles that would spark your students’ interests.

Short stories and vignettes. I love Cynthia Rylant’s book Every Living Thing. Each story is about a person and an animal. The stories include real dilemmas, interesting issues, and sometimes, sad endings. But they always leave the kids with lots to talk about as they negotiate the meaning of the text together, connect with the characters, and give their opinions about what happened in the plot or what should have happened. Not all of Sandra Cisneros’ short stories are appropriate for grades 3-6, however, I’ve used several of them from her books House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek. Jean Little’s Hey, World, Here I Am is another great resource these short vignettes.

Excerpts from your read aloud book. I often see teachers reading aloud great chapter books to their upper grade students and I can’t think of anything better for developing community. But sometimes the discussions around these texts are dominated by the “talkers” in the classroom. Why not revisit sections of the book with struggling readers in a small group setting to offer them more opportunities to respond? Look for a part of the book that has potential for discussions beyond the literal level, like the climax of the plot or a major turning point.

Picture Books. We are so lucky to live in a time when wonderful picture books are available for upper grade students. Even though most elementary school book rooms may not have multiple copies of picture books, with a little effort you can round up three or four copies for the students in that one special guided reading group, even if the kids have to partner-up on reading them. Try any of the ones listed here and you’ll see that your struggling readers can get hooked on books, want to reread them to find more support for their opinions, and are actually willing to practice their fluency in texts like these.
Voices in the Park, Anthony Browne
Faithful Elephants, Yukio Tsuchiya
Garden of Abdul Gasazi, Chris Van Allsburg
Emma’s Rug, Allen Say
The Enemy, Davide Cali
The Bracelet, Y. Uchida
Nettie’s Trip South, Ann Turner
Freedom Summer, Deborah Wiles

1 comment November 29th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Book choice and fluency

In this week’s Quick Tip, Pat Johnson talks about how choosing the right book can help struggling students become better, more fluent readers. In her book, One Child at a Time: Making the Most of Your Time with Struggling Readers, K-6, Pat provides a framework she has used with hundreds of students to help teachers understand and assist struggling readers.

One of the best ways a teacher can support a struggling reader who is working on fluency is to choose books carefully. A child needs some books in his basket or book box that he can read easily. Time for familiar reading each day will provide the child with opportunities to practice reading fluently. Each child needs to know what it feels like to be a fluent reader.

Juliza’s favorite book is Lazy Mary, with the chorus, “Lazy Mary, will you get up? Will you, will you, will you get up? Lazy Mary, will you get up? Will you get up today?” Oftentimes, I use that book as a way for her to gauge her own fluency. I say, “Try to make this one sound as smooth as when you are reading Lazy Mary.

We all know how young children love to join in on the refrains in familiar Big Books, like, “Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me. I’m the Gingerbread Man.” Teachers can use shared reading experiences with Big Books or poems on charts to talk to children about reading groups of words together. In Shared Reading for Today’s Classroom (2005) Carleen Payne gives various ideas of how to use Big Books to model, teach, and practice fluent reading with young children. Other ideas in her book include fluency activities for literacy centers, how to create Readers Theater scripts from familiar stories, and ways to reproduce familiar stories, songs, or poems to use with a take-home reading program. In Jodi Maher’s first-grade room, children love Mem Fox’s books. As you pass their room during shared reading, you can hear them reading with great expression. They love exclaiming words, such as, “Good grief!” or “Well, well!” as they enjoy Mem Fox’s repeated, singsong phrasing and delightful story lines.

Jodi: How did you know how to read this part so well? (points to the line “‘Good grief!’ said the goose.” )

Lindsey: I was sounding like the goose.

Conner: And I saw the exciting mark.

Jodi is choosing Big Books that support fluency teaching during shared reading for the whole class. She knows, however, that some children will need more of a focus on fluency than others, so for guided reading with small groups, she chooses sets of books for these readers that have singsong patterns or repetitive refrains. These books are not only fun to read, but beg to be read fluently. The list on the next page contains a few possible titles.

Carol Felderman, a second-grade teacher, noticed Gary’s choppy reading and began to try some of the suggestions I had shared with her. She was having trouble, though, finding just the right book that Gary would be willing to practice over time. Although he enjoyed and understood the books she gave him in guided reading and was beginning to improve his fluency, he rarely reread them during individual reading time. Carol knew that the familiar practice time was crucial for Gary to build fluency. I located a copy of Joy Cowley’s The Gumby Shop. This rhyming, rhythmic book is about the weird items you can buy at the Gumby Shop—from “a bear with electric hair” to “a bed made out of bread.” The humor appealed to Gary. After reading it together, I suggested that he read it to three of his friends during buddy reading time, since it was so crazy and he read it so well. He left full of excitement that he had a funny book to share with his friends.

Finding books that interest a child so that he will want to reread is not always easy. Other techniques are sometimes needed to keep children like Gary on task during individual reading time. One thing Carol found useful was to let Gary work with a tape recorder once in a while. He would tape himself reading a book, listen to his fluency, then try reading the book again to see if he could sound better. The challenge of trying to sound a little bit more phrased and fluent on the next try kept him engaged and on task.

Add comment October 6th, 2009

Questions & Authors: Selecting literature for reluctant readers

Not all kids love to read. And finding a book to whet the reading appetite of a young adolescent can be a challenge. So we asked Teri Lesesne, author of Making the Match and Naked Reading, how she selects literature for a reluctant reader and what she recommends if a student is only interested in books with violent content. Where should teachers draw the line? How much should teachers modify the curriculum to reach these reluctant readers? Here is Teri’s response:

Working with reluctant readers can be quite frustrating. However, when a reluctant reader finds that one book that touches her or him, the reward is even greater. So, even when a student is interested in violent content or texts that someone else might deem inappropriate, we must proceed with caution. The pages of a book offer a safe environment in which to experience, vicariously, those things we might not want our students to experience personally. Just because a student reads a book with violence does not mean this student has a violent nature. Often, the opposite is the case. Of course, if there are other signs (i.e., the student herself or himself is violent or exhibits violent tendencies), then there is reason to refer the student to a school counselor. However, many students read about war, rape, shootings, drug use and the like in the safe confines of books, a place where they can come to no harm.

How much to modify the curriculum for the reluctant reader is another challenge for educators. Often in schools, there is ONE book that all our students are expected to read and to comprehend. One book does not reach out to all readers. Even Harry Potter and his compatriots, books that sold millions upon millions of copies, are not for every reader. Personally, I do not care for romance novels (though I was a sucker for them as a teen). I have a friend who only likes nonfiction. I think the time has come for us to offer a variety of titles to our students. Instead of one book, offer five that are related thematically. The other selections can include some high/low materials for our English language learners and for students reading below grade level significantly. Other selections might be more challenging in form and format for our advanced students. If we do need to have a core text, offer it in different modes. Include an audiobook version (unabridged or abridged) or a graphic format (remember the Classic Comics?). Decide what is essential to glean from the text (honestly, other than a game show, when has someone asked you to name the gravedigger in “Hamlet?”). These modifications are not onerous and might mean more of our students complete the required reading with some respect for the text.

Finally, I would encourage educators to offer contemporary (young adult) materials to students to read for pleasure. It seems to me that as my own teens progress through school, there is less emphasis on reading for pleasure and way too much emphasis on reading for tests and analytical papers. How can we possibly encourage lifelong reading if we never give our students time to experience the pleasure of reading for reading’s sake? If this is going to happen, it is, of course, essential that we all read. We need to provide that model of lifelong literacy for our students. And it would not hurt if we read the books they find motivating. Take a look at this year’s TEENS TOP TEN:

1. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2006).
2. Just Listen by Sarah Dessen (Viking Children’s Books, 2006)
3. How to Ruin a Summer Vacation by Simone Elkeles (Flux, 2006).
4. Maximum Ride: School’s Out — Forever by James Patterson (Hachette Book Group USA/Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2006).
5. Firegirl by Tony Abbott (Hachette Book Group USA/Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2006).
6. All Hallows Eve (13 Stories) by Vivian Vande Velde (Harcourt, 2006).
7. Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Harcourt, 2006).
8. River Secrets by Shannon Hale (Bloomsbury, 2006).
9. Bad Kitty by Michele Jaffe (HarperCollins, 2006).
10. Road of the Dead by Kevin Brooks (Chicken House, 2006).

Add comment July 21st, 2008

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